Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.


2 thoughts on “Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

  1. Reblogged this on onracism and commented:
    The story of Shannon Gibney continues to serve as representative of many other less publicized cases like it. We must hold universities accountable when they seek to coddle and perpetuate the prejudices of those students most in need of education.

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